Irving Berlin's legacy lives on in Felder's portrayal

'Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin' runs through March 18 at Seattle Rep

No matter how much our dear leader fears them, our country and culture have been enriched by immigrants. One such was Irving Berlin, among the greatest composers and lyricists of the 20th century and the American Songbook.

Although he was born in another country, he became a beloved American patriot, whose life and talent comforted and uplifted Americans through the Great Depression and two World Wars.

His greatness lives on through the talents of Hershey Felder’s one-man show, “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,” now playing at Seattle Repertory Theatre. With music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and book by Hershey Felder, the production runs through March 18.

With the political unrest, ICE raids, and tragic shootings in our country, Felder’s tribute to Berlin couldn’t come at a better time. It makes a statement — Berlin was an immigrant — and Felder tells his rags-to-riches story.

The audience is greeted by a charming living room setting, festooned with garlands, a Christmas tree, and centerstage, a seven-foot Steinway and Sons grand piano.

As Felder morphs into Berlin — he also plays other characters — he displays a delightful gift for mimicry and mannerisms that is as rich and varied as his virtuoso talent for singing and playing the piano. By the end of the performance, audiences express their love for Berlin and fall in love with Felder.

Felder takes us on a personal journey through Berlin’s life — his family’s escape from religious persecution and subsequent immigration to America, his childhood poverty, his tenacious determination, his rise as a composer, two marriages (both beloved wives died, and one of his children died of SIDS), arriving inevitably at his bitter old age.

The stories and songs range from mischievous and humorous to poignant and patriotic. As Felder talks and sings, images of Berlin, his family, and his colleagues and celebrities flash on an empty picture frame on the wall.

We hear Berlin’s musings about Ethel Merman, the vocal “foghorn’s” song “Blue Skies,” which Al Jolson sang in, “The Jazz Singer,” Hollywood’s first talking picture in 1927. We hear about the Hollywood producers that panned Fred Astaire’s movie audition, “He can’t act; he can’t sing, dances a little.”

Over the years, Berlin was acknowledged with such accolades as the Army's Medal of Merit from President Truman in 1945; a Congressional Gold Medal for "God Bless America,” and other patriotic songs from President Eisenhower in 1954; and the Freedom Medal from President Ford in 1977. In 2002, the U.S. Army at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, named the Army Entertainment Division (AED) World Headquarters "The Irving Berlin Center" in his honor. Also that year he was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp.

Felder’s performance begins as a reminiscence by Berlin's younger self and continues on to the end of his life. Set in Berlin’s townhouse, carolers can be heard singing "White Christmas," outside. Greeting the audience as those warblers, Felder-as-Berlin recounts the story of his life, tragedies and triumphs alike, which in turn cues up the songs.

Directed by Trevor Hay, Felder performs the composer’s most popular and enduring songs, from “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to “Always”, “Blue Skies,” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Felder does a hilarious impression of the great Ethel Merman belting out, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” from the 1946 Broadway musical, “Annie, Get Your Gun;” “You’re Just in Love,’ from the 1950 Broadway musical, “Call Me Madam,” as well as Bing Crosby singing “Count Your Blessings,” and “White Christmas” from the 1954 film of the same name. And don’t forget “God Bless America,” which singer Kate Smith turned in an anthem.

Born Israel Isidore Baline in 1888, he was one of eight children. His family was forced to flee Russia in 1893 to escape religious persecution and immigrated to America when he was five years old. They settled on the Lower East Side of New York City, where his father was a canter. They lived in a three-room apartment on Cherry Street in Chinatown, where they shared space with oversized roaches and rats. 

By the time he was eight years old, young Berlin was hawking newspapers on the street. It was there he heard the music coming out of the salons and restaurants. He started singing songs while selling papers, and people would toss coins to him.

Berlin was the original Dreamer. He took to the streets where he joined the city's ragtag army of other young immigrants on the Lower East Side. After his father died in 1901, 13-year-old Berlin began working as a busker singing for pennies, then as a singing waiter in a Chinatown Cafe. In 1907 he published his first song, “Marie from Sunny Italy,” and by 1911 he had his first major international hit, “Alexander's Ragtime Band.”

Although he couldn’t read music, he taught himself to play the piano while working as a singing waiter. It was the beginning of his illustrious career. From there he would go on to become one of America’s greatest patriots and composers.

Berlin lived until he was 101 years old, and during his lifetime, he wrote over 1,500 songs. Legend has it that he wrote a song a day, and it was almost always written and played entirely in the key of F-sharp. In a 1962 interview, Berlin said, "The black keys are right there, under your fingers. The key of C is for people who study music.”

"My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American,” Berlin said, “not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country. The highbrow is likely to be superficial, over-trained, and supersensitive. The lowbrow is warped, subnormal. My public is the real people.”

Berlin retired from music at age 79. Rock & Roll was taking over. He watched his own popularity wane as he was eclipsed by “the boy with the hips.” When his wife Ellen died at 80 years old, Berlin became a curmudgeonly recluse. He would live until Sept. 22, 1989.

Felder, a pianist, actor, playwright, composer, producer, and director, has a slew of one-man shows to his credit.  In other words, Felder knows and loves what he is doing, and he does it with elegance, humor, and playfulness.  

Berlin’s music provided inspiration for our best loved singers — from Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire to  Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Merman and Aretha Franklin … we could go on.

“A song will never leave you alone … I wrote for love. I wrote for my country. I wrote for you." So says "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin."

Perhaps Jerome Kern (no slouch himself) said it best. "Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he is American music.”

For the hour and 45 minutes he’s on stage without intermission, Felder doesn’t play Irving Berlin. He is Irving Berlin.

At his request we sometimes sang along. It’s no wonder Felder’s audiences will be loving him “Always.”

“Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin,” runs Tuesday through Sunday through March 18 at Seattle Repertory Theatre's Bagley Wright Theatre; The production runs an hour and 45 minutes without intermission; tickets start at $17; discounted tickets for groups of 10 or more may be purchased by calling 206.443.2224; For ticket reservations, call the Seattle Repertory Theatre Box Office at 206.443.2222 or toll-free at 877.900.9285, or go online at